Wednesday 30 October 2013

Gasbags and lurkers

I don't think extroverts and introverts will ever understand each other. They have such different outlooks and such different temperaments. The confident, sociable gasbags are baffled by the reticent, thoughtful lurkers and vice versa.

Personally I'm a confirmed introvert. I enjoy a modest amount of socialising and chattering, but too much of it and I start to panic, feeling my identity is being lost in a thickening fog of compulsive blather that's draining me rather than nourishing me.

To an extrovert, that inner panic is bewildering. They love talking to others and they would go on all day and all night if they could. The idea that you've had enough, that you might be hankering desperately for some peace and quiet, is incomprehensible.

Unfortunately, instead of trying to understand each other, extroverts and introverts tend to be mutually suspicious, always accusing the other lot of being the oddities and weirdos who make daily life more difficult.

If only those boring silent types would contribute a bit more, say the exasperated extroverts. If only those narcissistic windbags would shut up for a second, say the irritated introverts.

As an introvert, I believe an hour or two of private thought about something is probably more productive than an hour or two of gabbling away to someone else about it. An extrovert would believe exactly the opposite.

As an introvert, I like to contemplate beautiful sights in silence, gradually absorbing the full grandeur and impact. This isn't enough for the extrovert, who needs to share the excitement with as many people as possible, take 23 photos and post half a dozen Facebook updates. To them, staying silent can only mean chronic emotional constipation.

I guess this mutual perplexity will run and run. But one thing's for sure. Extroverts and introverts need each other's opposing qualities to get the maximum out of life. A bit like chocolate chips and cookies.

Sunday 27 October 2013

Whistle stop

New laws were passed a while back to protect whistleblowers and stop them being penalised for exposing things other people would like to keep hidden.

But in practice the laws have had little effect and people who're brave enough to ask awkward questions and challenge malpractices are still relentlessly persecuted.

They can lose their job, lose their home, lose a lot of friends, and be quite traumatised by hate campaigns and personal attacks. They still take a huge risk in speaking out.

Julie Bailey, the woman who exposed the substandard care and unnecessary deaths at the Mid Staffordshire NHS Trust, has been so persistently harrassed that she has had to sell her business, sell her home and move to a caravan park fifty miles away. She has effectively been run out of town.

Hers isn't an isolated case. Others who "tell tales" in the same way have been similarly persecuted and hounded to try and shut them up and prevent them telling the truth. I know personally of one woman who can no longer find work in the food trade after she complained of sexual discrimination and had to change career to make a living.

The fact is that unless you're prepared to have your life ruined and your professional reputation trampled on, you shouldn't speak out about wrongdoing and corruption but should pretend you know nothing about it and everything in the garden is rosy.

Too many people and organisations still object to their work or their behaviour being criticised, even if the criticism is well-deserved and in the public interest. They'll go to any lengths to close ranks and silence the troublemakers. No wonder whistleblowers are still such a rarity.

Pic: Julie Bailey

Wednesday 23 October 2013

The unflinching truth

Prepare yourselves! My new no-holds-barred autobiography, out tomorrow from Snipcock and Tweed ("Counting The Cost", 872 pages, £24.99) will be a shattering exposé of my chequered and controversial life, marked by brutal honesty, eye-watering revelations, and unflinching hatchet jobs on all my friends and relatives.

Humiliating financial circumstances have forced me to relive all those notorious, headline-grabbing episodes I'd prefer to forget and plumb the depths of gratuitous muck-raking and character assassination.

Recoil at the sordid details of the all-night chocolate cookie binge. The hysterical outburst on the number 4A bus. The uplift bra calamity. The awkward stumble on the loose paving-stone. The mangled credit card. Images that will haunt you for weeks. Insights that will change your life.

The complete story of the runaway pram is told for the first time. The frail pensioner who lost her left leg. The giant egg. The missing sock. The burnt toast. The unbelievable chain of events that led to one of the biggest disasters in post-war British history. Including newly-discovered, stomach-churning photos.

Nothing is spared in the account of my tragic unrequited crush on Rosie Huntington-Whiteley. The repeated visits from her 20-stone bodyguards, the restraining orders, the arson attacks on my country hideaway, the sabotaged car brakes, my poisoned Alsatians. I make no secret of my tormented heart, my hopeless misery, my searing emotions.

I nail once and for all the persistent rumours that I was born with three legs. I prove that the photos were faked and the so-called reliable source was an alcoholic welder from Dundee. I reveal the real owner of the amputated leg, a 90-year-old widow called Fiona.

All this and more in the literary sensation of 2013. Buy it now or be out of the loop! An ideal topic for dull dinner parties! And at 872 pages, the perfect doorstop! What are you waiting for?

PS: Rats! All copies of the book have had to be withdrawn following a legal writ from Ms Huntington-Whiteley. She claims there are numerous defamatory statements, unauthorised photographs and factual errors in chapter seven. I can't say right now when the book will be re-published.

Sunday 20 October 2013

Future shock

I have what you might call future-phobia*. I'm nervous about the future and what it might bring. I don't have that optimistic horizon that most people possess.

Where other people assume the future will bring something better than they have right now, that life is essentially a matter of onwards and upwards, my imagination runs riot with all manner of unpleasant possibilities.

I'll run out of money; I'll go senile; I'll get some dreadful illness; the house will fall down; I'll live to 100, by which time I'll be a brainless vegetable; I'll die alone and not be found for weeks; I'll turn into a crazy eccentric, shouting at people in buses; I'll be dumped in some vile care home; and so on and so forth.

Why do I have these gloomy (and extremely unlikely) scenarios? Why don't I assume the exact opposite,a happy and healthy old age in which nothing very nasty happens and I enjoy all the things I enjoy right now?

After all, the future, by definition, is largely unknowable. Anything could happen, and there are sure to be plenty of surprises and odd quirks of fate. Good luck is just as likely as bad luck, and to dwell on the second is irrational and perverse.

But then, as we all know, humans are irrational creatures and trying to banish the irrational from our psyches is no easy task. I can tell myself over and over that my fears are unbalanced, that I'm looking at things from a lop-sided perspective, but the fears defy my earnest logic.

No doubt in twenty years' time, if I'm still on this planet, I'll laugh at all the absurd fears of my earlier years and wonder how on earth I imagined such grim turns of event. And then I'll have a chocolate biscuit and a nice cup of tea.

* It's very common but there doesn't seem to be a technical name for it. Secret Agent Woman, any ideas?

Wednesday 16 October 2013

Feeding time

Why are people still so hung up about breastfeeding? It's a totally natural activity, all the experts recommend it, there's nothing sexual or porny about it, yet any public glimpse of it is still seen by many as shocking or even distasteful. Why such extreme reactions?

One woman suggests it's partly the lack of breastfeeding photos in the media. If you never see pictures of it, it turns into something odd and furtive, something you feel uncomfortable about. If images of breastfeeding were everywhere, that sense of peculiarity would disappear.

It's not only photos we're lacking. It's any mention at all, other than in parenting columns. It seldom comes up in books or plays or movies. Or public health ads. Or people's photo albums. Even in ordinary conversation, it's a bit of a taboo.

Not so long ago pictures of heavily pregnant women were thought outrageous. Now they've become normal and nobody bats an eyelid. Breastfeeding photos need to become equally common. And not just photos in a domestic setting but in those public places we use all the time - restaurants, cafes, shops, cinemas.

Feeding your child with your own milk (or someone else's child for that matter) is one of the most natural and beautiful things in the world. It's far more natural than the sort of images routinely plastered over the media every day - images of death and destruction and disaster.

Newspapers fall over themselves to publish pointless pictures of buxom, scantily-clad women. Yet when breasts are put to their intended use, suddenly mass coyness descends and nobody must see this awful, corrupting sight. It's absurd.

If breastfeeding mums were as visible as page three girls or underwear models, maybe ordinary women with hungry children wouldn't find themselves relegated to a filthy toilet or dingy storeroom as if they were hopeless perverts.

Sunday 13 October 2013

Head scratching

There are many things in modern life I totally understand and welcome. There are other things I don't understand at all. I ask myself, what is this all about? What's going on here? But I'm buggered if I know the answer. Here are just a few of the things that leave me scratching my head:

1) The obsession with celebs
2) Tattoos
3) Tongue-piercing
4) Stag and hen weekends
5) The prejudice against public services
6) Posting naked selfies on Facebook
7) Wearing a face veil
8) Having private quarrels in public
9) Personalised number plates
10) Going mental on a plane
11) Nouvelle cuisine
12) Barbecues
13) Thongs*
14) Cosmetic surgery
15) Weddings on the other side of the world
16) Gangnam
17) Letting kids run wild
18) Teeth whitening
19) Designer labels
20) Lads' mags

I'm not saying these things are wrong. I'm not saying they should be stopped (well, maybe some of them**). I simply don't understand the attraction or the need or the pay-off. Different strokes for different folks and all that. Of course if I lived in Australia, I would have to attune to 12. I mean, barbecues are compulsory, aren't they? Don't you get jailed if you refuse to have one? Or so I'm told....

* that's the underwear and not the Aussie footwear
** maybe 5,10, 17, 20?

Tuesday 8 October 2013

Couth or uncouth?

We all have a different idea of what's meant by good manners, don't we? What to one person is quite normal behaviour strikes someone else as the height of rudeness and vulgarity. What one person sees as a stimulating argument, another sees as a blatant attempt to spoil a happy atmosphere.

People can feel so strongly about someone's "bad manners" or "discourtesy" that they cut them dead, even if they were close friends. They find the other person's conduct so repulsive and embarrassing they just don't want to be exposed to it again.

I remember carefully avoiding one woman after she invited me for a birthday drink and then steadfastly ignored me while chatting busily to her other friends. Jenny and I gave another friend the brush-off after she turned up an hour late for a (by then overcooked and inedible) meal. She breezed in without any apology as if this was perfectly acceptable.

Table manners can be a big bone of contention. I don't even notice if someone always talks with their mouth full, while someone else will be cringing with distaste. I loathe messy eaters who spray crumbs and food fragments in all directions, while other people aren't remotely bothered.

Conversational habits are another bugbear. Is the person who gushes non-stop about themself tediously narcissistic or admirably self-confident? Is the person who hardly says a word a good listener or a lazy deadweight? Is the person who finds the hole in every argument a pain in the arse or a breath of fresh air?

Attitudes to personal criticism vary widely. I can take very heated criticism without turning a hair, while others are grievously offended by the mildest challenge. I know I have plenty of faults and I don't mind if others point them out - as long as they're polite about it. But my father took the slightest criticism as almost a declaration of war, and would sulk for days.

What's meant by good or bad manners is a tangled question. But one we shouldn't waste too much energy on. If we're so obsessed with someone's eating habits that we pay no attention to what they're saying, that's absurd. It's jolly bad manners in fact.

Tuesday 1 October 2013

Forced to love

Living in the society I do, where marriages are based on love and affection, it's hard to believe there are still many countries where a forced marriage to someone you don't like, don't love, or don't even know, is commonplace.

It's bad enough when they're similar ages, but even worse when the bride is still a child and the bridegroom maybe decades older, and the girl has very little idea what she's getting into or how she might be treated. It may seem quite romantic until she's faced with the reality of an uncaring husband.

Noora Al Shami's story is horrific, but I imagine all too typical of what a forced marriage can really mean in practice. Her husband treated her like a sex object, like a toy, and it was only after ten years of constant physical attacks that she managed to escape and rebuild her life by training as a teacher.

Of course it's not so long ago that British couples were forced into shotgun weddings by parents embarrassed by an "out of wedlock" pregnancy, and many of those marriages were also disastrous. Thankfully attitudes to unmarried parents are now more relaxed and this home-grown variety of forced marriage has ended.

But elsewhere the custom is alive and well, with many declared and undeclared reasons for marrying someone off. It can be to provide citizenship, to attract a bridal dowry, to increase the population, to resolve tribal feuds, or for the sake of family pride. The obvious potential for conflict, violence and misery between two people who turn out to be incompatible is routinely ignored. Likewise the likelihood that a strong and arrogant older man will treat his young wife like a doormat.

Even a relationship based on love and affection can be hard enough to maintain in the face of everyday problems and challenges. The chances of a forced marriage being successful must be very low indeed. Yet utterly reluctant girls and women - and presumably some of the men - are still pushed into it by determined families unconcerned with the possible consequences.

There must be many women like Noora, trapped in dismal marriages, who at times wish they'd never been born at all.

Pic: Not Noora Al Shami